Wednesday, 30 May 2018

outrageously outspoken or miserably misunderstood?: in defence of lily allen

not too long ago, british singer lily allen released her first single since her third album sheezus back in 2014. though i wasn't thrilled with it upon first listen, i went back to it after reading two new interviews she did with vulture and GQ ahead of the release of her new album no shame, due june 8th. what struck me - both in the single and the accompanying interviews -  was her complete and total honesty about what's been happening in her life since sheezus was released, and despite the controversy that has followed her throughout her entire career, i'm struggling to understand just why she has been so heavily criticised simply for being herself. 

but more on that later; like with any good story, we have to start at the beginning. 


way before my fourteen year old self became a devoted lily allen fan, there was her first album, 2006's alright, still. the then 21 year old allen had already gained a somewhat notorious reputation as a party girl, frequenting all the celebrity haunts in london at the time and seemingly following in the footsteps of her father, actor keith allen. her debut produced smileone of her best-selling hits to date - as well as LDN, which i vividly remember seeing all over the music channels, transfixed by her bright red dress and trainers combo, a look she was rocking way before chanel made it cool. ten year old me had no idea what the "crack whores" and "slappers" mentioned in the song were, but several tracks from the album have gone on to reflect some of my own experiences. of course LDN is an obvious one; the city isn't so glamorous once you've taken the tube at rush hour and jostled through the crowds on oxford street. then there's friday night, in which she sings about the pitfalls of a night out, from the "guy on the mike" who's "making too much noise" to the "massive queue outside" and how it can all go wrong after one too many drinks, things i found out the hard way during my time at uni. 


but the track that hit hardest when i listened to it again last night was everything's just wonderful, which details allen's money troubles - "i wanna get a flat, i know i can afford it / it's just the bureaucrats that won't give me a mortgage" and worries about weight loss - "i wanna be able to eat spaghetti bolognese and not feel bad about it for days and days and days" - way before the recession of 2008 and instagram piling on the pressure to look a certain way. millennials are still dealing with the fallout from the worst financial crisis since the great depression, with young people in south korea opting out of the dating game altogether as the cost of getting married and starting a family is simply too high. just last night the BBC aired killed by my debt, a drama telling the true story of jerome rogers - who committed suicide in 2016 after being unable to pay off his debts - and shining a light on the reality of working a zero hours contract. 


allen's second album it's not me, it's you continued to explore controversial and personal topics way before being "woke" was a requirement for pop stars, and once again it would go on to mirror the life experiences i've had in the nine (!) years since i first pressed play. lead single the fear saw allen take aim at consumer culture and the increasing number of reality TV stars slowly taking over our screens, along with the pressure she felt to join the ranks as the tabloids were "gunning for her to fail", something she discusses in the vulture interview. it would seem she was ahead of her time; back in 2009, the kardashians were only just gaining traction - the show had only been on air for two years - and the likes of geordie shore and the only way is essex were yet to hit our screens.  


at the time of the album's release, allen would have been 23 years old, and it's only now as i'm approaching that age myself i realise how similar our experiences have been, and that despite a ten year age gap between us, only now are we both starting to take responsibility for the bad decisions we made in the past. 
everyone's at it sees her criticise drug culture in the UK, as everyone from "grown politicians to young adolescents" is taking substances in one way or another, and the pressure she felt to get involved, as she discusses in this interview. fast forward nine years and london was crowned the cocaine capital of europe, while the drug's strength has increased rapidly since 2015, and during my time at university i was one of those adolescents "prescribing themselves antidepressants" to deal with the stress of life away from home. 

track number eight is the subtly titled fuck youaimed at president george w. bush and his "whole crew" of associates, it seems she once again captured the mood of the american people as his approval rating was a paltry 22% when he left office in 2009. him finds lily trying to make sense of the religious beliefs bestowed upon her as a child and how people died in god's "good name", "long before that september / long before hijacking planes", a not so thinly veiled reference to the religious extremism that fulled 9/11. one of my favourite tracks, kabul shitexplores lily's concerns about the environment, once again preceding our ongoing efforts to use less plastic. way before feminism dominated mainstream society, on 22 lily lamented the way women are still valued solely on their looks; the pressure we feel to be married with kids by 30 is still alive and kicking years later, with extravagant weddings all over instagram and some women spending upwards of $30,000 on their big day only to feel "8/10 happy" with how they looked. 


it's this refreshing honesty that sets her apart from the uber polished image of stars like taylor swift, who came under fire for staying silent during the 2016 election and was accused of using feminism as a tool to sell more albums. allen's openness helps me come to terms with my own experiences and reassures me that i'm not alone in this. in her GQ interview, lily discussed how her alcohol use increased when she felt nervous before a performance or interview and that when she drank to "get rid of sadness" it became a problem. since leaving uni i've also found myself reflecting on my drinking habits in a similar way and making a conscious effort to consume less alcohol as i no longer need to use it as a coping mechanism. 


she also admitted that sheezus wasn't the album she wanted to make as she was "writing music for people’s expectations rather than for me", which is where new single trigger bang comes in. featuring the minimal production that has now become her signature, the lyrics talk about how she "can't hang with the cool gang" as they "fuel her addictions" and trigger the destructive behaviours from her past. to quote GQ: "it's a lead single about fondness for the good old days while grappling with the knowledge that your nostalgia is clouded because those "good old days" were fuelled by substance abuse." 


all of this brings me back to my original point: why has lily allen been so harshly criticised for raising awareness about political issues and talking openly about her personal struggles, while men are applauded for doing the same? the pressure for women to appear perfect affects every aspect of our lives, but this dichotomy is impossible to ignore in the mainstream pop sphere. 


it seems we're still suffering from a case of double standards in music: you only need to look at how kurt cobain was branded a troubled lyrical genius who struggled with addiction, while his wife courtney love was branded a junkie when she spoke out about her own problems, and even accused of plotting to kill himlana del rey has been accused of "glamorising" violence against women while chris brown and r kelly continue to forge successful career paths despite countless allegations of abuse and convictions for domestic violence, while just a few weeks ago rita ora came under fire for her song girls, in which she talked about her own experiences with women for the first time. many concluded that the lyrics were not only harmful to the LGBTQ community but also perpetuated damaging misogynistic stereotypes about the way men view women, supported by the fact the song was written mostly by men themselves. all of these ideas are perfectly valid, but why is it that when harry styles sang about "messing around" with girls and guys and refusing to label his sexuality he was hailed as a "bisexual icon", while ora was essentially forced to come out against her will? 


allen has openly talked about her drug and alcohol problems and been branded a bad mother and nothing more than a "troubled party girl", but the 1975's matty healy faced no such scrutiny when discussing his substance abuse on the band's second album. paris is littered with drug references and ugh! speaks for itself, detailing the highs and lows of his cocaine use. it seems there's one rule for men and another for women, but with the rise of the me too movement, women are finally finding their voice and allen's continued refusal to "compromise my sense of self" will hopefully show that being vulnerable is nothing to be ashamed of. 

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